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West African Currency Swap Starts Again


The Central Bank of West African States has started a one-month extension to complete replacing old currency with a new series. Tthe operation follows bank robberies in the rebel-held north of Ivory Coast, where the currency swap has been the most difficult.

The Dakar-based regional bank known by its French acronym, B.C.E.A.O, says more than 99-percent of a total of $1.7 billion has been exchanged in countries using the regional CFA Franc.

Bank officials say the initial three-month operation that ended December 31 went well in all areas, including the northern rebel-held Ivory Coast. They say the extra month is needed for people who were not aware of the currency swap process.

Bouake civilian Kone Brahima says the problem goes well beyond awareness.

"For the time being, I see there are very big problems, because many people here in the north of Cote d'Ivoire cannot go to exchange their money. Because there is the very big problem of security," he said. "You cannot take your money and take the path to Abidjan. It is very dangerous because if you go, you can be attacked by people."

During the initial period, an exchange center was opened in the rebel stronghold of Bouake for just three days. There were no other exchange areas in the entire north, because there are no working banks.

During the extra month, northerners are expected to travel to government-held southern Ivory Coast to exchange remaining 1992-series currency.

Rebel spokesman Drissa Ouattara warns this could create a humanitarian crisis. "If nothing is done to allow the people here to exchange to change the old notes by the new ones, it will bring another crisis in the crisis we are living now," he said. "So in that time, the central bank, the bank which is issuing the new notes they came once. And we are waiting for them to come again to have all the notes here changed."

The operation to change CFA currency in eight West African countries closely followed the theft of about $100 million in banks in northern Ivory Coast. Many analysts believe the swap was organized to prevent all this money from being laundered.

Another reason is to make counterfeiting more difficult.

But there have been problems to carry out the exchange in other countries, like Niger, according to Niamey-based journalist Ousmane Toudou. He says he finds it surprising that just one-percent remains to be changed in the region, because, he says, there have been many protests. He says civilians in remote areas have not been able to swap small bills, worth one or two dollars. He also says many people have been robbed by fake bankers doing the exchanging for them.

The West African CFA Franc is pegged to the euro and is used in Ivory Coast, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal and Togo.

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